I was trained as a missionary priest, but I was not trained in the “how” of missionary work – this I learned, when I arrived in Sarawak and was taken upriver by the priests and catechists. I learned the customs concerning visiting people in longhouses and villages; I learned about their lives, centred, as they were, on the planting, weeding and harvesting of the rice cycle. I learned also to take a few simple medicines with me, when I travelled, such as panadol for aches and pains and carbon tablets for diarrhoea which I gave out if they were needed. In these and other ways, I became a part of their communities; we became friends and my visits, usually about once in three months, took on the air of a party. However, at the back of my mind, was the thought that all this was in addition to my task of preaching the gospel, which I understood in terms of knowledge – Scripture, truths, teaching people about God. What I was doing, I thought, apart from the formal teaching sessions of my visits, was just making friends. I now realise that I had got those two things mixed up, for the people, in fact, already knew about God – albeit in different forms and through different words – but they knew. What they did not know was how to meet that God – and I, through my visits, my concern and my friendship was unwittingly showing them how to meet that God – and that is Gospel!
We often get mixed up with what we know about God and the language we use to teach it. I remember once watching a priest teach an old lady about the Trinity and doing so by showing her how to make the sign of the cross. She already knew the meaning of the words “father” and “son”, and although “Holy Spirit” may have been a bit of a puzzle, nevertheless the words spoke to her of family, something she had been part of all her life – and if you know about family then you know about God because fundamentally the “Trinity” is the teaching that God is “family”.
The Gospel message is about how to join that family. We surround our own families with boundaries – we delineate those within, who belong to us, from those without, who do not. The family that is God, however, has no boundaries and so to join that family we have to cross over the boundaries we have made. By coming into their longhouses and villages, by learning to be concerned about their concerns, just as members of their own families are concerned, I was crossing over the boundaries of my own family and race to meet them – and so was showing them how to meet God, to be part of the family that is God. My visits to the longhouses and villages were not just a nice thing to do – they were Gospel.
The Gospel is a call to cross over boundaries and in doing so find love and this involves every aspect of our lives. We are born into a family and within that family we experience the love that helps us live and grow. However, we soon find that our small enclosed space is not enough for us and if we are to find those great friendships, those great loves, which open us to a fuller human life, then we have to cross over our family boundaries. This does not mean that we stop loving our families, it means that we break down the barriers that stop us loving others as we love our families. We push back the boundaries. This is a life-long journey and involves being led by the Spirit to recognise again and again the boundaries that hem us in, that stop us growing. It when we dare to cross over these boundaries, that we find the great loves of our life and, in doing so, also find the One who is love.
When I went up into the longhouses and chatted with the people about their families, their harvests, their concerns, I was crossing over the boundaries that separated us. I was walking into an unknown world, but a world where I was to find friendships that would last a lifetime and beyond. All Gospel teaching is about reaching out to others and sharing what we have with them and all this can be understood in terms of crossing boundaries. When we cross over these boundaries that surround us and make friends outside of our comfort group we find life, we find God. This is both knowledge of God and also knowledge of how to meet God. This is Gospel.
I realise now that I made a mistake in the way I arranged my time during the long vacation that has just finished. I decided to go to Bali for Christmas and New Year and then come back to Kuching for January. However, Bali was very crowded at that time which made travelling to meet friends difficult. I also had not fully realised that many of my friends would be away for the holidays. Then, when I came back to Kuching, at the beginning of January, I more or less twiddled my thumbs for a month – and the truth of a 12 step saying was brought home to me: “If you are by yourself, you are in bad company!” So, I have decided that next year I will turn it round. I will stay in Kuching over the Christmas and New Year festivities and then go to Bali to visit friends and do other things. However, with all these plans, I need to add what my old Aunt Mary taught me to say – “God willing!”
A young man, who is preparing to be baptised, sends me texts messages and comes to see me to chat now and then – and I enjoy his visits. However, the other night I received a text message at 1.15am and the sound woke me up, for I also use my hand phone as an alarm clock and have it nearby when I sleep. So the next morning I sent a text, “I enjoy receiving your messages, but not at 1.15am. If you need to chat with someone during the night, please try Jesus – he has more patience that I!” However, I forget, at times, that it can be dangerous to use sardonic English form of humour like that. The next day, the lad was awash with apologies and I have not heard from him since. I must now go hunting for him to explain I am not angry with him!
Talking about “being awash”, we are awash with oranges at the moment. It is the custom to give oranges at Chinese New Year and here in the seminary we have received boxes and boxes of them. However, they are sweet and, being a good source of vitamin C, are helping us keep the many many colds away.